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Olive, Again

A Novel

by Elizabeth Strout

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout X
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2019, 304 pages

    Nov 2020, 320 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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Power Reviewer
Cathryn Conroy

What a Treasure! This Is a Book About Life and Death That Is Filled with Wisdom and Grace
This is a 10-star book in a five-star world. With an imaginative structure, a riveting storyline, and incredibly vivid characters, this book by author Elizabeth Strout is one to read slowly, fully savor, and treasure.

This is the sequel to the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Olive Kitteridge," and, yes, you absolutely must read them in order. Although it is titled a novel, it's really a hybrid—as was "Olive Kitteridge"—between a short story collection and a novel. Each chapter is really a short story about a person, couple, or family living in Crosby, Maine. Olive Kitteridge is often the central character in these stories, but sometimes she makes only a cameo appearance. Still, there is a definite connecting thread through all the stories, and that's what makes it a novel.

Strout has so brilliantly crafted the character of Olive that I almost think she might be joining me on the sofa while I read. She is older now—in her 70s and 80s as the book progresses—but still a large woman with brightly-colored clothing, a big handbag, and distinct quirks, such as waving her hand over head when she says good-bye, responding "ay-yuh" a lot, and saying exactly what she thinks.

This is a book about life…and death. It's a book about life in the face of death. It's a book about life in spite of death. It's a book that will make you laugh and cry as we all must face not only the deaths of parents and friends, but also our own demise. It is a book packed with wit and wisdom and pithy life advice. But most of all, this is a book filled with grace and goodness.

Warning: Do read Elizabeth Strout's novel "The Burgess Boys" before you read this book. The chapter titled "Exiles" is essentially an epilogue of what happened to the Burgess family 10 years after that novel ends. In other words: Major spoilers!

A delightful curmudgeon
As with the first book, Olive Kitteridge, this is the story of a singular woman living her brief life on the coast of Maine, creating wreckage with her acerbic tongue and caustic judgments. She is deeply broken, our Olive, and not very likeable, and yet we love her and wish for her to succeed. This is the tightrope Elizabeth Strout has walked yet again in this second volume. How is it that such an unpleasant person can elicit such sympathy from us? I suspect the answer is the resonance we feel in response to her brokenness, how it chimes with our own. Though she is far more unskillful in her dealings with those around her than most of us, we have all had our moments of being the Olive in the room, the one who blurts out the ugly truth or the intolerant judgement, then wonders why we have become the pariahs.

It is rather odd to call this a novel (as it was the first book), because this really is a book of short stories interconnected by a single character, who sometimes is front and center, and other times barely even mentioned. Yet it becomes the story of a single life, much like a paint-by-numbers picture becomes comprehensible with the addition of each subsequent color, different shadings and hues of Olive become more evident with each passing chapter.

I particularly like her relationship to Jack Kennison, a person in whom she has met her match and who loves her despite herself, as did her late husband, Henry. But I also deeply appreciate Strout's expansion on Olive's connection to her son, Christopher, with whom she has both a deep bond and troubling animosity. She wishes to be loved by him, but seems incapable of being lovable with him. It is terribly heartbreaking, but also feels truthful and genuine.

A few quick notes: first of all, though this novel would stand alone, reading the first will give this one greater depth and meaning. Second, if you have not watched the adaptation of Olive Kitteridge with Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins (with Bill Murray as Jack Kennison), please do. They embody the characters so thoroughly and so well, it is difficult to imagine anyone else in those roles.
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